On the cover of Remnants of a Separation is Aanchal Malhotra’s grandmother smiling with her eyes and with her white hair neatly parted in the middle to seat a gold maang-tikka with specks of ruby, garnet, pearl and diamond – stones native and peculiar to the North-West Frontier Province. This family heirloom, worn by generations down to Malhotra herself, had survived the Partition to be worn on wedding days. Malhotra’s grandmother wore it once on her wedding day and then decades later as she spoke to her granddaughter about the journey her mother, her siblings and she had made across the border with the maang-tikka tied into the folds of a garment to prevent it being stolen. In her own words, her grandmother explained that her mother couldn’t part with it because, “it was the only thing that remained of her land…the stones were from its soil. It was born there, just like her.”
Remnants of a Separation is a museum of human and individual loss, of what people carry in their hands and on their backs when the finality of leaving presents itself, of the items that don’t survive the journey, and of the subsequent burden on the remnants to carry the stories of whole persons, families and regions. Malhotra dedicated the better part of her twenties curating this museum – finding people who crossed the border and people who remained, hearing their stories, and bringing them to the world.
What began as a thesis for an MFA in Visual Art turned into a blog and a photo series on Instagram. In turn, the photos and accompanying oral histories have grown into a book that offers itself as a visceral history of Partition through objects.
The objects are as varied as a yardstick known as a gaz which was once used to measure fabric and a pair of pearl necklaces, a saat ladda and a paanch ladda (a five strand and a seven strand), stored in a bank locker whose key has been lost. Some objects were carried for their value. Others were packed for their deep ties to family history. Others have stranger stories behind their survival.
Malhotra recounts a story that speaks to the disorientation, disbelief and complete unpreparedness of people during that time – writer and former Procter & Gamble CEO Gurcharan Das’s grandmother carried a set of fifty-one keys across the border believing she would return to unlock the fifty-one doors and cupboards she had carefully secured before leaving.
The objects – small or large, utilitarian or ornamental – carried across the Radcliffe Line become an entry to remembering the past. There exists a certain reticence and reluctance to divulge or directly discuss the years of and after the Partition. Recovered from the depths of almirahs and dusted off, the objects allow Malhotra’s interviewees to recount myriad memories, both good and difficult.
Nothing sentimental about it
When I first tell a friend, who has her own difficult ties to Partition, about Malhotra’s project, she’s exasperated. “I see a lot of sentimentality around Partition suddenly,” she says. What prevents Remnants from being a mere exercise in sentimentality is Malhotra’s scaffolding of these stories. As I read the book, I found myself less interested in the objects themselves than in the surprising ways in which her interviewees mirror each other.
They’re first baffled by Malhotra’s request to see old, family possessions whose significance they haven’t thought about in a long time. They claim to assign no special value to them till Malhotra asks if she can borrow them for research or drape the garment over her shoulder instead of theirs. Then she observes a sudden, desperate possessiveness.
I couldn’t help but appreciate that she takes a few steps back to show us the story, to allow us to choose whether and what to feel. She ensures that we understand the textures and nuances of memories that have been deepened and buried in the aftermath of Partition. And is that not a seminal purpose of a new viewing of an old history? She supplements what we know instead of falsely pulling at heartstrings.
Nationalism and parochialism
The history revealed in this book is the sort that would traditionally be shared amongst families as small pieces of tehzeeb (culture) that were once important to the family. A serving utensil called the khaan-daas was once an integral part of a bridal trousseau. Paan was prepared and served in it.
The languages, local and coarse, revealed in these interviews show mother tongues only heard in towns across the border or amongst the scattered migrants of that town. A shared native language could mean an arranged marriage between two families who could speak to each other in a dialect no one else in their new home knew.
Remnants is (inevitably) also a comment on religion, nationalism and parochialism. Some love Delhi so much they moved back to their ancestral neighbourhood in the city after escaping the worst of the violence. Some stayed in India through Partition for logistical reasons and migrated a few years later. Some speak of the extreme xenophobia Punjabis faced when they moved to Delhi. Some do believe in inherent differences between Hindus and Muslims.
What struck me as I thumbed through story after story is how different each individual’s perception of the event was. The book gathers these different characters in one room where everyone remembers what the price of free nations was and who paid that price – with many, many degrees of separation from the people who decided.
Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory, Aanchal Malhotra, HarperCollins India.